The Libyan tribes, their loyalties and the Egyptian bait, explained

Egypt is threatening the UN-backed Libyan government with a tribal rebellion, but many tribal leaders have criticized the former military general. Here is a breakdown of the tribal demographics of Libya.

Last Friday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi joined a photo op of eight men who claimed to be representatives of Libya’s ethnically diverse tribes.

The group called on Sisi to send Egyptian troops to Libya and wage war against Turkish forces that support the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). This came weeks after Sisi said Cairo would arm the Libyan tribes and pit them against the GNA.

The GNA has been fighting Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar since 2015 and Egypt, along with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and France, have openly supported the warlord in his quest to violently overthrow the internationally recognized GNA.

Governance in Libya is directly subordinate to the loyalty of its tribes, which are the oldest and longest standing societal institutions in the country.

As early as World War I, they played a crucial role in shaping political discourse, as well as in the future of the country.

A day after Sisi met with the group, the Libyan Council of Elders criticized the Egyptian president for his plan to arm the tribes, saying the military general-turned-president should instead arm “the courageous Egyptians to defend their country’s sovereignty. and Nile water rights. “

The council also denounced the so-called tribal elders who met Sisi in Cairo, claiming that none of them represented a Libyan tribe.

But are the Libyan tribes crucial in shaping the outcome of the conflict?

They played a major role in the Arab Spring revolution of 2011, which brought about the end of Muammar Gaddafi’s long reign.

However, their loyalties have changed in the last five years of the Civil War. For example, rival tribes, Tebu and Touareg, put aside their differences and forged an alliance under the GNA in February earlier this year. The two tribes control large swathes of southern Libya, including oil facilities and strategically important border posts.

But some have facilitated the expansion of warlord Khalifa Haftar in the country. Since Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) has limited military capacity, gaining the support of sheikhs and tribal notables has been at the heart of his strategy to deepen its presence in the country. It was with the help of local tribes that he was able to take control of strategically important Crescent Oil ports in the north in September 2016.

According to Stratfor, a political risk advisor, there are nearly 140 tribes in Libya, but only 30 of them are of particular importance.

Here is the breakdown of some of the most important.


As the name suggests, it is the tribe of former ousted Libyan leader Gaddafi that is one of the smallest Libyan groups and historically not particularly powerful. Its territory is located between the port of Sirte halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi to the Sahara.

According to experts, the tribe, which grew richer under Gaddafi’s reign, is sometimes accused of having a stranglehold on power and constitutes the nucleus of some of the “regime’s protection units”.


Warfalla is known as the largest tribe in Libya with an estimated population of 6 million – its leaders have previously announced that they have turned against Gaddafi. It is mainly based in the east of Tripoli with its origins in Misrata. The tribe is famous for launching a coup against Gaddafi in 1993 with the support of the Magarha group, demanding greater representation in government.

Recently, its leaders announced that they would support Haftar and the Egyptian initiative, the so-called “Cairo Declaration”.


They are the second largest tribe in Libya, but had complicated relations with the government during Gaddafi’s tenure. Hailing from the heart of the country, many members settled on the coast as the tribe played an increasingly central role in politics. Their leader, Abdessalam Jalloud, used to be called the second most important man in the country until he fell out with Gaddafi and turned on him. The tribe quickly joined the uprising in 1993, but when the coup attempt against Gaddafi failed, they were able to maintain closer relations with Gaddafi following closed-door negotiations.


The Tuaregs are known as a traditionally nomadic tribe. They live in a number of Sahara states and claim them – in fact – as their own. It is estimated that among millions of its members, more than 500,000 members of the tribe live in Libya.

Tuareg rebels have attacked other Saharan governments and oil facilities in their quest for independence, but have not traditionally clashed with the Libyan government, leading some to suspect that Gaddafi had armed them.

Last year, reports revealed that the Tuaregs were forming an alliance under the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) to defend southern Libya from military advances by warlord Khalifa Haftar’s militia. .


It is widely believed that 50 percent of the western mountains are made up of Berbers who were seen as a largely marginalized group under Gaddafi’s rule in favor of the Arab majority. Many of them helped take Tripoli.

Last year, it was revealed that warlord Haftar had discussed plans to form an all-Berber “infantry brigade” to participate in his offensive to capture Tripoli.

Haftar’s so-called LNA spokesperson Ahmed Al Mismari, as well as Amazigh and Arab officers – also known as Berbers – from the Nafusa mountain range in northwest Libya, would lead the brigade which will be made up of fighters from the region.

In response, the Amazigh Supreme Council, an organization representing the Berber community in Libya, said those “who had met the war criminal represented only themselves.”

They denied all media reports that Libyan Amazighs were joining Haftar’s ranks.


This eastern tribe is the one from which Gaddafi’s second wife comes from. Many of his children are believed to have supported him, with some members appointed to mid-level bureaucratic positions. On the one hand, some members quickly joined the opposition, while some tribal leaders seemed reluctant to make overt statements about their loyalty during the uprising.


The most important thing to note about the Zuwayyah group is where they reside. Despite the fact that they colonized largely rural areas, they also tend to be oil-producing regions. Although they are relatively small, Zuwayyah demands a greater voice in the use of oil revenues. They were said to have been among Gaddafi’s most vocal opponents during the uprising and are relatively well armed. Ultimately, their main interest is to ensure that they continue to profit from Libyan oil.

Other oriental tribes

Sharing the same name as the eastern city of Misrata, the Misrata tribe is known as the largest in eastern Libya.

The other one found here is al Awaqir, and it is most common in the town of Al Bayda. They both fought Italy and the Ottoman Empire in the past.

Then there is Obeidat, mainly based around the northeast garrison town of Tobruk. Along with the Barassa and Hassa tribes, the Obeidat supported the warlord Haftar during his “Operation Dignity” campaign in Benghazi.

Other western tribes

Overlapping geographically with the Warfalla tribe, the Bani Walid are said to have defected from military units at the start of the uprising.

As for the Tarhuna tribe, it represents nearly a third of the population of Tripoli, while the Zentan are located between Tripoli and the Tunisian border. Both are believed to be represented in the military.

Source: TRT World

About Wesley V. Finley

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